4 Things to Know When Looking for Sugar on Food Labels

Reading Food Labels for Sugar - Simply Nourished Wellness

I get a lot of questions about reading food labels and some of the confusion that results from it. I get it – food labels have a lot of info, and some of it can be a bit misleading at times (whether intentional or not).

I talk a lot about sugar, the effects of it on the body, reducing sugar consumption, and what your best bet for sugars are, but I wanted to point out some important things about reading food labels for sugar and how to make the best choice as you stand in the grocery store staring at label after label!

Tip 1: Look for sugar grams on the nutritional label

Reading Food Labels for Sugar - Simply Nourished Wellness

I posted this label above on my Instagram feed earlier this week and had people guess what food it was from…can you guess? Believe it or not, that label is from a package of individual serving size cups of canned peaches in fruit juice (no sugar added). Those Total Sugars listed are the natural sugars that occur in fruit. Fruit has natural sugars and those are reported on labels, so you need to keep this in mind as you go through the label reading process.

You’ll notice that this label has the Added Sugars area (where you can see there are 0g of added sugars). Thankfully, more and more food manufacturers are moving to this type of label. When you read the label for Sugar grams, be sure to check especially for this Added Sugars area. This is what you really want to look for. While sugars are still sugars, natural sugars that come from fruit (and especially when eaten as a whole fruit) are handled better by the body than processed & refined added sugars.

Tip 2: Watch for ALL the forms of sugar on a label

While you know to look for regular sugar as well as honey, and likely the dreaded high fructose corn syrup, there are a lot more varieties of sugar than this and some might be slipping by your label checks! Here is a thorough (though probably not all inclusive) list of ways you might see sugar on labels:

  • Sugar
  • Corn Syrup
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Honey
  • Maple Syrup
  • Maple Sugar
  • Date Sugar
  • Coconut Sugar
  • Pure Cane Sugar
  • Raw Sugar
  • Turbinado Sugar
  • Cane Syrup
  • Cane Juice
  • Evaporated Cane Juice
  • Agave Nectar
  • Lactose
  • Invert Sugar
  • Brown Sugar
  • Confectioners Sugar
  • Corn Syrup Solids
  • Barley Malt Extract
  • Invert Sugar
  • Malt Sugar
  • Molasses
  • Maltose
  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit Juice Concentrates

That’s quite a list, right? But once you start looking for these, it will be easy to spot them. These are not all inherently bad. Sure, some are better choices, due to being less refined (which will get to in a moment), but when you see a food loaded with sugars, it might be a sign that it’s not the healthiest option.

Sugar Lumps - Simply Nourished Wellness

Tip 3: Look for where sugar is on the label

I know people who have told me that they won’t buy something if sugar is listed in the top 3 ingredients. While that’s a great basic guideline, it’s important to go a step further and read ALL of the ingredients label, as sometimes things are not what they seem!

Here is a list of ingredients from a popular cereal (no need to name names as I’m not trying to call anyone out):

CORN, WHOLE GRAIN WHEAT, SUGAR, WHOLE GRAIN ROLLED OATS, BROWN SUGAR, RICE, CANOLA OIL, WHEAT FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, CORN SYRUP, SALT, WHEY (FROM MILK), MALTED CORN AND BARLEY SYRUP, HONEY, CARAMEL COLOR, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, ANNATTO EXTRACT (COLOR). BHT ADDED TO PACKAGING MATERIAL TO PRESERVE PRODUCT FRESHNESS.

So sugar is the 3rd ingredient. If we read only that far, we might think “not too bad” on sugar. But notice all 4 of the highlighted words…these are all forms of sugar added. When ingredients lists are made, the list starts with the ingredient used in the largest quantity and then goes down from there to the ingredient in the least quantity. Often times manufacturers will use multiple forms of sugar so that each of these sugar forms is in a smaller quantity, and as a result, listed further down. In the example above, if all of those sugar forms were ONE type of sugar, I have a feeling that sugar would be at least the 2nd ingredient (possibly the first?).

Tip 4: Choose foods with less refined sugars

And finally, what sugars to choose? With all sugar, in any form, LESS IS MORE. So to start with, make sure that those added sugars are low! But as you read the ingredients label, aim to purchase products that use less refined sugars.

My Top Choices:

  • Honey
  • Maple Syrup
  • Coconut Sugar
  • Date Sugar
  • Maple Sugar

Honey and Maple Syrup are great pure sweeteners and the least refined (especially if you choose raw honey!). Coconut, Date, & Maple sugars are lightly processed and are still quite natural and great options for natural sweetening.

Sugars like high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and regular white sugars can be highly refined and processed, stripping them of the beneficial minerals and nutrients and leaving you with just plain old sucrose and/or fructose. These refined sugars can have worse effects on our blood sugar levels in the body, so it’s best to avoid them or use sparingly.


I hope these tips on sugar help you read through labels a little easier. If you still have some label reading questions (whether about sugar or something else), comment below and I’ll help you figure it out!

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